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Whale Watching San Francisco

What to Expect on Your Adventure on the Waters of the Pacific Ocean

San Francisco is a great place to go whale watching. Just a few miles off the shore are cool waters that offer the perfect feeding ground for several varieties of whales including grays, blues and humpbacks.

Different whales migrate through this area at different times of the year. Many stop here for a while on their way up north for even richer feeding areas.

San Francisco Whale Watching

On your whale watching journey, you also get the chance to see schools of dolphins, leatherback turtles and sea lions. Almost a hundred bird species and more than 300 types of fish call this area home too.

So, grab your camera and let's head out on the water for an unforgettable whale watching adventure!

Whale Watching San Francisco Season

The great thing about whale watching in San Francisco is you have the chance to admire them almost all year long. My favorite time to go is during the warmest time of the year - September and October. During this time, the sun is shining and the water is calm.

However, January and February are a fantastic time to see several whales, even though the weather is cool, rainy and the water can get rough.

Whales & Other Animals
May to November
December to May
Gray, Sperm, Killer (Orcas)
July to October

All Year

Dolphins: Bottlenose, Northern Right Whale, Pacific White-Sided, Risso's, Common

Porpoises: Dall's, Harbor

Other Animals: Sea Otters, California Sea Lions, Harbor Seals

The only time of year that isn't great for whale watching is between mid-November and mid-December. As you will see from the chart above, it's the tail end of the season for the humpback and blue whales. It's also just the start of the migrating season for the gray, killer and sperm whales.

If you are visiting during this time, you can still go out and explore. The ride itself is worth it and you will most likely see other sea creatures. Another plus is that many tours offer a second trip out if you do not see whales during your ride.

San Francisco Whale Watching Tour Details

There isn't really a "best time of day" to see whales in action. Some people will say morning, some will say afternoon, but they are active all day long so the time you head out does not matter.

All whale watching San Francisco cruises leave from Fisherman's Wharf.

The cruise I recommend is the 2.5 hour cruise. It has several departures times, which makes it a great choice for those visiting for just a few days.

It leaves from Pier 39 every Monday through Friday. You can choose to depart at 8am, 11am, 2pm, or 5pm.

Once you are settled into your spot on the boat, you will cruise along SF's northern waterfront district. You will then get a chance to ride under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to the Pacific Ocean.

Depending on the time of year, you will then make your way around 3 to 8 miles out to look for migrating whales. Along the way, you will search for dolphins and other sea life in addition to whales.

Tips for Your Journey

1. Take Seasickness Pills: If you are like me and get seasick, then make sure you prepare for this ahead of time. There is little room to lie down on the boat, so it can be miserable if you aren't feeling well. The boat also stops at the Farallon Islands, where it will rock quite a bit. My new favorite seasickness medication is Bonine. It works well without the drowsy feeling. However, it isn't as widely distributed, so if you have problems finding it, then head to and pick it up before your trip.

2. Protect Yourself from the Sun: Even if it's cold and windy when you leave, the clouds can burn off quickly on the waters outside San Francisco. Make sure you are prepared with sunscreen, sunglasses and/or a hat.

3. Bring Your Camera: It is safe to bring your camera with you on this journey. I recommend bringing something along that you can use to cover it up, since at times, it gets choppy and the ocean water splashes onto the boat. You don't want to ruin your nice camera with a little salty ocean water.

4. Wear Comfortable Shoes: Whale watching in San Francisco is not the time for high fashion. Wear flat-soled non-slip shoes for the journey. You will be on your feet most of the time looking for whales, so plan for comfort.

5. Pack Warm Clothing: It may be warm and sunny on the day you leave for your whale watching adventure, but make sure you bring along warm clothes. The minute the boat leaves the dock you will start to feel the cool ocean breezes on your skin. I always wear pants and bring along an extra jacket to stay warm.

6. Bring Snacks: There isn't really much food on the boat, so bring along your own snacks. I like to pack some simple crackers or peanuts in addition to water.

7. Use Binoculars: Be one of the first people on the boat to spot the whales with your binoculars. Again, I recommend bringing something to cover them up so you don't have to fight off the ocean water stains once you return to shore.

Seeing Whales from the Shoreline in SF

One question I'm often asked is if you can see whales from the shore in San Francisco. Since the most visited places in SF are along the SF Bay, you will not be able to see whales from the shore there.

Most of the whales in the Pacific Ocean are at least 3 miles away from Ocean Beach too, which is on the western side of San Francisco. This makes it a very rare occasion for people to see whales from the coast in San Francisco.

If you really want to see a whale, your best bet is to take one of the tours mentioned above. The naturalists on the boat will have the best ideas on where to find the whales and you will almost always see one during your cruise.

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